About the Southern Frontier, the Site, and the Archive

The Southwestern humorists published their work, sometimes under pen names or anonymously, in local newspapers or in periodicals such as The Southern Literary Messenger, but the best known venue for this school of humor was WIlliam T. Porter's New York Spirit of the Times, a weekly that appeared between 1831 and 1861. In naming this Web site, we have tipped our caps (coonskin, presumably) to the original Spirit.

SW Humor and the "Southern Frontier"
The Southern Frontier and American Literature
Their Humor, Our Sensibilities
Selecting Our Sources
Our Sources & Frontier Humor
Design Philosophy
Questions of Copyright and Access


Southwestern Humor and the "Southern Frontier"

The language will always be chaste, so that the most delicate may approve.

William T. Porter, "Prospectus," Spirit of the Times & Life in New York, Vol. 1, No. 1, 10 December 1831

For students of literature, the term "Old Southwest" is likely to evoke saguaro cacti, adobe walls, cattle drives and rattlesnakes. When scholars use the term, however, they mean the western boundaries of the Southern states between 1830-1860. While this Old Southwest did have its share of snakes, two legged and otherwise, the popular term applied to this literature remains confusing enough to warrant further clarification.

For this reason we gradually settled on the term "Southern Frontier." This not only marks a geographical region, but it captures the shifting boundary between the settled lands "back east" and the wilder regions westward. From colonial times to the Jackson era and its attendant forced removals of Native Americans, the frontier for an old state such as Georgia might be in its western mountains. Later on that area moved across the Mississippi, so when looking for exact definitions of what was frontier, what not, we have only "an elusive, ever-changing line" (Cohen and Dillingham xv).

Even so, "the frontier" was as much about habits as it was habitat. The mores of frontier life lingered in story telling and daily life, long after settlement had pushed further west. One need only attend small-claims court in any small Southern town or rural county to see how the "bench and the bar" of Baldwin's day persists. If judges today appear more honest, attorneys and clients nevertheless can "raise a ruckus" in court equal to anything documented in Porter's Spirit.

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The Southern Frontier and American Literature

For many years, Cohen and Dillingham's excellent anthology has been the only readily available way to introduce antebellum Southern humor in depth to students. With the advent of the Web on college campuses in the early 1990s, however, more material from the era could again leave the shelves of libraries' archives and special collections to see the light of day, or at least the light of our monitors. Since the writing of the humorists has passed into the public domain, an obvious motive exists for digitizing first editions, illustrations, and other work by these writers. A less obvious motive exists for putting their world on the Web.

We may be tempted to think that anonymous humorous journalism, reports of odd events, and other ephemera hiding in our state and university archives have little or no literary value. To be sure, many of the pieces we have digitized lack the type of literary style we associate with works by "canonical" writers who began as frontier humorists, such as Mark Twain. The authors of this site, however, have an interest beyond exploring what lies between the covers of deteriorating volumes of antebellum newspapers.

The culture of the Southern Frontier, as reflected in its advertisements, obituaries, and stories of violent death in duels and suicides, gives modern readers the paper (or Web-based) equivalent of H.G. Wells' time machine. The content of old newspapers, cartoons, and pamphlets, much of it akin to today's "tabloid" reportage, provides a glimpse at the concerns and obsessions of the times. Study of antebellum sources also reveals influences that shaped Mark Twain's work, that of other important humorists such as Johnson Jones Hooper and George Washington Harris, as well as the work of later writers who employ humor—black comedy, satire, or parody—including William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, and John Kennedy Toole.

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Their Humor, Our Sensibilities

Studying the Southern Frontier may also disabuse us of any notion that a "golden age" ever existed in America; we come to understand that politics were as corrupt and as partisan, and motives as venal, as the worst we can manifest. Looming in the background, though rarely addressed in any serious way in this literature, are two mortal sins of our history: genocide for Native Americans and bondage for African-Americans. Other races were present on the frontier and at its boundaries, but rarely in the humorous sketches do they appear as more than clowns or villains. Perhaps this exclusion has offended modern readers and thus contributes to the lack of critical attention given this literature.

While we do not want to imply that this humor is universally racist, it was often a humor of cruelty. As scholars have long pointed out, it was humor written by and for white men. We struggled not to pass judgment on our sources, but we did. We did not, however, censor or exclude any piece. We warn readers who may by offended by racial terms commonly used then. We retain, not without a shudder, words like "nigger" that appear in our sources. One may reasonably ask why such writing deserves to be preserved at all, when even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has come under fire for its use of the "n-word." We were tempted to censor our sources or not include those with offensive language, but we want to give our audience the same glimpse we got in the archives.

Moreover, it is salutary to come to grips with ideas nothing like our own. We can better combat racism and injustice in our society if we understand how such ideas developed. Our sources provide a look at what one group of writers of the time thought about racial minorities, women, and other second-class citizens of their day. Oehlschlaeger, in the introduction to the pieces he edited and republished from the St. Louis Reveille, notes that some readers today find in this work an "honest recognition of the darker and more anarchic impulses of human personality" (31). We agree; the darkness and anarchy in the pieces we have collected could often be taken from newscasts today.

At the same time, some of our sources portray America as a place where people remade themselves, a frontier with open roads leading to a better future. Even if we now regard such cliches with suspicion, for many people those were realistic expectations and remain so today. Such conflicted feelings about our frontier past are not new. Mark Twain spent a lot of time writing about these contradictory ideas, even after Frederick Turner declared the frontier closed in 1893.

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Selecting Our Sources

This is to let foax no eye kan beet him, un if every body wil cum whair I B, Ile swaller the follerin artykles, bout as quick oz Davy Crockett cood eat a read hot johnny kake. Fore hogsits bilin hot sope, red hot kro-bars by the acur, red hot potash by the tun, seven stem-botoes, passengers and awl . . .

Joe Strickland, Jr. "Procklaymashum: Newly adapted—revised and corrected."
Spirit of the Times and Life in New York
, 1 Sept. 1832

There is a bounty of material extant from the Frontier era, too much to compile even for a team of researchers working for years on the project. Like Joe Strickland, we could make a frontier-style boast about placing everything from Porter's Spirit and other periodicals online. After all, the sources are in the public domain and storage media are now inexpensive! We could thereby "swaller" more than we or visitors could ever digest. Most of the papers we studied published humorous journalism; even so, we had not expected to find enough humorous "artykles" to stock a Web archive. We were badly mistaken.

From the start, we had to make editorial choices about which pieces to include. We began by looking at publications of every sort in their original formats that did not duplicate items found in the Cohen and Dillingham anthology. At first, this restricted us to a few bound volumes of Spirit of the Times, The Southern Literary Messenger, and to Richmond-area newspapers from the period. Frustration can mount when working with old materials that may be in poor condition; even though newspapers in the 1830s appeared on paper superior to anything we now call "newsprint," nearly two centuries have taken their toll. Luckily, such instances were rare, and we gradually expanded our search to publications on microform and at the the University of Virginia's Barrett Collection. The problem then became how to select from a growing mountain of prospects.

In sorting the kro-bars we discarded from the johnny kakes we ate, we decided that articles had to meet at least the first two criteria to become part of the archive:

  1. Antebellum publication date and location on the Southern Frontier
  2. Subject described in Cohen and Dillingham's introduction to Humor of the Old Southwest
  3. Presence of frontier dialect or deliberate misspellings
  4. Short, often second-hand, accounts of actual incidents (such as botched suicides and duels or mistaken identities) clearly intended to be humorous
  5. Other subject, location, or time period that shed light on the life and times on the Southern Frontier (such as images depicting Confederate soldiers as frontier knaves and bandits).

This final criterion became quite a "stretcher" as we found backwoodsmen from Michigan talking in a nearly identical way to inhabitants of Arkansas or Mississippi. For a good example, see the sketch "Establishing the Science" by Everpoint. Perhaps this occurs because the genteel narrators so frequently found in this literature were not as interested in linguistics as they were in following the conventions of the genre. Thus Cooper's Natty Bumpo and Harris' Sut Lovingood sound more alike than is commonly acknowledged in scholarship. It were the natur of the times, as either of them might have said.

Ironically, our first guide was NOT laughter--a joke that sent its reader into hysterics in 1843 might fall fall flat on its face today. Moreover, much of the what Richard Boyd Hauck correctly called "humor of the incident" might not be that funny or even make sense to, say, someone who never had a powder-burn from shooting a black-powder rifle. It takes a footnote and a great deal of explanation for modern readers to get the irony out of Jim Doggett's explanation that his gun "snapped," just when he confronts the bear in Thorpe's famous "The Big Bear of Arkansas." If the incident remains funny on its own, that's because readers are more likely to envision an Elmer-Fudd disaster with a balsa-wood rifle instead of a misfire from a percussion cap at the worst possible moment.

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Our Sources and the Evolution of Humor on the Southern Frontier

American humor existed long before Porter's paper brought it to a large audience; Colonial writers such as William Byrd illustrated, to hilarious effect, the differences between the genteel worlds he knew in Europe and in the Southern Piedmont and what he found among common folk living in remote areas along the "dividing line" between Virginia and North Carolina. One mystery about the evolution of American humor remains the starting point for humor specifically about the frontier in the Southern states. 1830-1860 is often given as a convenient range of dates; they roughly correspond to the publication dates of Porter's newspaper. More typically, the heyday of Southwestern humor is thought to begin with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's Georgia Scenes in 1835.

Today we can gain access to antebellum humor much more easily than in decades past; in his doctoral dissertation, written in 1965, Hauck despaired that several years of the Spirit of the Times were unavailable in any format. The more complete holdings of nineteenth-century periodicals by libraries today expand our understanding of how humor from the Southern Frontier evolved. For example, our review of early issues of Porter's paper revealed that as early as 1832 he was including humorous sketches from the Southern backwoods.

These pieces lack the polish that later humorists gave their work. Nevertheless, the earlier humor Porter printed in the Spirit shows that even before Longstreet's sketches appeared, the conventions of the genre were already established. Pieces from the 1830s that we have digitized from The Spirit of the Times, such as "Cousin Sally Dilliard" and "Race for a Wife," reveal the elements that characterize later writing: the violence of frontier life, the art of the backwoods confidence man and practical joker, the drama of the hunt and courtroom, the frontier dialect captured orthographically by a genteel narrator. Even as Porter sought to re-publish many English sketches and accounts of European travelers, almost from the start of his paper frontier characters skulk at the margins in small items and untitled accounts. The effect of these short pieces is not unlike that of George Washington Harris' famous trickster Sut Lovingood, who waited at the fringe of weddings, quiltings, and camp meetings, ready to transform everything polite into chaotic and bawdy sport.

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Design Philosophy

open source imageWe have endeavored to make the site accessible to a variety of common browsers. Documents here are presented in HTML or commonly available file formats for downloading. Fonts for all transcribed documents use a serif for easy reading when printed; all informational pages are in a sans-serif font for legibility. All materials are stamped with an acknowledgement of its source; anything on the site may be copied and distributed. We do ask that all users acknowledge our site and encourage others to use it. Whenever possible, we will provide materials in facsimile form as TIFF and/or PDF files. These files may be large, so we also provide transcriptions of materials. The transcriptions may include notes and intra-document links.

The contents of this site do not pretend to match the accuracy of a modern scholarly edition, though we have had at least two readers check the transcriptions and make corrections from the originals. We made no corrections or other changes except where a newspaper's typesetter clearly made a mistake; we note the mistake and our clarification. Em dashes, so common a journalistic tradition in the Frontier era, and often used out of sensitivity about words such as "d—n" for "damn," "G—" for "God," caused us no end of grief. The dashes we used in our original typescripts often scrambled entire paragraphs when viewed (especially in Internet Explorer, d—n it!). In repairing this, we have inserted HTML code for Em dashes in troublesome spots, and left our earlier convention of multiple hyphens in others. Second, in the interests of preserving our sanity after many hours of proofreading, we left intact some of our failures to replace all "smart" quotation marks with "straight" ones. In the originals, conventions vary but our errors in no way affect interpretation or accuracy: a double-quotation in our archive matches one in the original.

We strongly support access to all types of users, including those with slow Internet connections or who prefer to print documents for study away from their screens. For these reasons, the Spirit site is not loaded with extraneous graphics, dancing animations, video of drunken deer hunters, or other "eye candy," except where graphics or digital video are essential to furthering users' understanding of the materials stored here.

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Questions of Copyright and Access, or, in the Words of Simon Suggs, Why "It is Good to be Shifty in a New Country"

Johnson Jones Hooper's character, one of the most famous in the corpus of Southwestern humor, proclaimed such shiftiness as his personal philosophy. While the authors of this project are not confidence men or women, we share Suggs' notion that when living or traveling on a frontier, craftiness may be more important than the niceties of civil society.

While we no longer have Huck Finn's ability to "light out for the Territory" in a literal sense, we users of the Web do enter a largely (as yet) untamed frontier online. Gradually, however, large segments of the Web are being fenced behind the wires of campus networks and copyright-protected archives. Luckily, the material we study remains safely in the public domain, outside the encroaching "settlement" of the Web.

Public-access, public-domain projects such as this need not strain our budgets or campus networks. In fact, The Spirit of the Southern Frontier Web site, like much of the writing it contains, intends to subvert the growing presence of restricted-access or for-a-fee content on the Web. Restricting access not only hurts those without the financial means to attend our colleges and universities, but, paradoxically, it also may hurt us financially. If the fruits of our intellectual labors are locked away, how will potential students and donors judge the quality of our institutions?

Thus, the creators of the Spirit base it on a free exchange of gifts between scholars and the public, rather than a corporate or academic “fencing in" of information that could be exploited for patents and online delivery of courses. Like some of the frontier tricksters and confidence men of the Antebellum Southern Frontier, we recalcitrant humanists may even encourage colleagues to “pull a fast one” on those who seek to enclose our intellectual property inside virtual fences.

In crafting and maintaining the Spirit, we will adhere to "The Bethesda Principles", quoted here from the Open Access Now site:

An Open Access Publication is one that meets the following two conditions:

1. The author(s) and copyright holder(s) grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship, as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.*

2. A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving.

*Interested parties may make unlimited copies, electronically or on paper, of the materials found on the Spirit site. We only ask that attribution be given to this site in return and that no fee be charged for such materials.

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We are greatly in debt to the staff of the Library of Virginia and University of Virginia's Alderman Library. At both libraries, the staff in Microforms, Archives and Special Collections assisted us in identifying the best copies of materials and in using the correct technology in correct ways. We would also like to thank the staff at the Library of Virginia's Circulation Desk for honoring our many odd requests for rarely circulated materials.

Dr. W.D. Taylor, Professor of English, and Dr. Harry Ward, Professor Emeritus of History, reviewed materials and put us back on the correct trails into the frontier. Dr. Pat Schoknecht, Director of Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Richmond, played a key role in assisting us as we applied for both ACS and UR grants. Dr. Dona J. Hickey, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, reviewed materials and provided invaluable assistance in securing an undergraduate summer research grant. The Associated Colleges of the South awarded a ACS-Mellon Technology Fellowship. Without these sources of funding, our expedition would have never left the settlements.

None of the work done here would have been possible without the introduction to Southwestern Humor provided by Dr. James H. Justus, Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University. Jim's enthusiasm for literature was only exceeded by his Southern wit and charisma. Dr. William B. Dillingham, Professor Emeritus of English at Emory University, was a helpful correspondent as this project evolved, and the creators of Spirit of the Southern Frontier acknowledge the seminal role that his and Henig Cohen's anthology Humor of the Old Southwest plays in sustaining the interest in this topic. In looking closely at how George Washington Harris influenced later writers, we have found M. Thomas Inge's books invaluable, especially Faulkner, Sut, and other Southerners: Essays in Literary History and his and Edward J. Piacentino's Humor of the Old South.

Joe Essid, Site Manager and Erin Bartels, Research & Editorial Assistant
University of Richmond
June 2003

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Works Cited:

Cohen, Henig, and William B. Dillingham, eds. Humor of the Old Southwest. 3rd ed. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Hauck, Richard Boyd. "The Literary Content of the New York Spirit of the Times 1831-1856." Diss. U of Illinois, 1965.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz, ed. Old Southwest Humor From the St. Louis Reveille, 1844-1850. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1990.